‘At what age does my dog become a senior’ is a question we are frequently asked as the nutrition team for Burns Pet Nutrition.
In recent years there has been huge improvements in nutrition and health care, so our dogs are now living longer than ever before. The average lifespan is around 13 years; however, the ageing process varies from one dog to another. Giant breeds tend to age earlier, and mixed breeds tend to live a little longer.
One survey amongst vets suggest small dogs (under 10kg) are seniors at 11years of age, medium dogs, (11-25kg) at 10yrs, large dogs (26-40kg) 9 years and the giants around 7.5yrs of age.
Old age is not a disease, but the effects of ageing do have an impact on the organ systems and vary with each dog. Kidney, cancer, and heart disease are the most common diseases of the ageing dog.
Nutrition and lifestyle are very important in keeping them youthful. As their metabolic rate is generally lower, most elderly dogs may need a smaller portion, up to 20-30% less. This is the time of their lives when dog waistlines may expand as they often become much more food motivated.
Giving regular exercise will help maintain their muscle tone and vitality. It also keeps their weight in check and improves circulation. If they do start to lose muscle mass, it may be beneficial to increase the protein in their diet, unless of course there are kidney issues. Restricting protein will not prevent kidney disease in a healthy dog.
An interesting study on Border Collies suggested that the working Collie showed little or no decline in energy needs as it got older compared to the Collie kept as a pet, which declined in the same way as other breeds. (Harper 1998a). Dogs that are kept active may not need a restriction in calories.
As dogs get older, owners notice a decline in some of their senses: hearing, eyesight, and sense of smell, which can have an impact on their eating habits. Dogs don’t have the same amount of taste buds as we do but their sense of smell is far superior and if this declines, they may not find food so appealing which can lead to inappetence. Keeping an eye on their teeth and gums is also important, as tooth tartar and gum disease can lead to a sore mouth and a reluctance to eat.
When KT reached 14 years of age I had to face many different challenges.
For a few months, I thought she just had selective hearing until it dawned on me that yes she could hear me sometimes, it seemed when my voice was at a certain pitch. Yes, she was becoming quite deaf. I often wondered how this change must have affected her, as I chatted to her all the time. Did she think I’d stopped talking to her?!
We had great fun learning new hand signals. KT always kept an eye on me when we were out and about so it was quite easy to let her know when I needed her to come back to me, or when I was changing direction or wanted her to ‘stay’. Who said you can’t teach old dogs new tricks?!
The biggest challenge was her greed, she had always been really food oriented, but she took it to a new level. I had to take all the bins out of the kitchen and leave no food out. She worked out how to open the cupboard I kept her food in. Out on our walks she was only interested in sniffing out food.
Our evening walk finished in a car park where there were a number of bins usually filled with takeaway packaging. She very quickly learnt that if she ran ahead without looking at me to stop her, she could get away with a bit of bin diving. Yes, I often caught her with her head and front legs in the bin pulling out chip paper.
KT had always been an avid swimmer she loved a dip in our local estuary, and I worried that she may not cope with the tides as she got older, I needn’t have, she knew her own limitations and gradually stopped going in the sea at around 14, she was still happy to have a swim in a pond.
Dedicated to the memory of KT, and all those who’ve passed over the rainbow bridge.